Earlier today, we clicked through to Eric Bennett’s “How Iowa Flattened Literature.” Three people had emailed us the link by the time we got to our email. They knew that we have for some time been attempting to understand US literary nationalism and the role of literature in US soft diplomacy. Bennett too has been studying, as he puts it, “the relationship between creative writing and the Cold War.” Bennett’s addition is focused on Paul Engle, the second director of the writing program at the U of Iowa: “For two decades after World War II, Iowa prospered on donations from conservative businessmen persuaded by Engle that the program fortified democratic values at home and abroad: It fought Communism. The workshop thrived on checks from places like the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave Iowa $40,000 between 1953 and 1956—good money at the time. As the years went by, it also attracted support from the Asia Foundation (another channel for CIA money) and the State Department.”
I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins….— William Wordsworth, "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads"
So first there is the break, the moment that cannot be contained; then time passes, one achieves some distance, one brings the surfeit back into thought, patiently reproduces its intensity but now as representation, as form. One realizes the truth of the original moment, but in a measured way. The measure, the bringing to heel of the original overflow, is precisely Wordsworth’s break between language and real life.
We have been trying for some time now to understand poetry, understand not just its aesthetics but also how it circulates and what it carries with it as it circulates. We came to poetry through higher education, but once we were there, we were told that poetry was more vibrant outside of higher education and this seemed to be a true statement at the time. As a result, when we were sent down to do an internship at the Poetry Project, we devotedly showed up every Wednesday and put out chairs. Once Jessica Hagedorn let us write some things for the Newsletter but she complained that our prose was not awake and rewrote them so they were no longer ours and she was right.
In the last two posts in this series, we’ve tried to illuminate a possible future for poetry beyond poets and poems. We’ve argued that this future is one resolution of a long-standing contradiction internal to poetry, a contradiction we can trace back to the emergence of literate poetry in the first class societies. The horizon we have sketched out is not an idle utopia, even if it is hardly certain; it is, as we’ve argued, perceptible as the decipherment of a persistent tension within poetry, a strange ache. In the modern period, this tension has given rise to a curious tradition of antipoetic or antiaesthetic experiments through which poets have tried to abolish poems and themselves along with them, to exorcise poetry once and for all of its powers of mystification, to render it unintelligible, mute, to tear it apart in hysterical enacments of the fragmentation of bourgeois society. Poetry signals beyond itself to what it cannot resolve, though it does keep trying. This much, we hope, has been clear.
Poetry, many cultures in many different times have decided, is a good genre for ecological thinking, for cataloguing and storing things humans need to know about the plants and the animals in order to survive. It is often, as many nations realize, a fine genre in which to incite patriotism. And similarly, many use it to articulate a love for a beloved.